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The anatomy of “Flight Path”

The anatomy of Flight Path.

The header image from Scott Gordon shows the NewsMatch and Tone Madison logos over a faded, red-tinged photo of No F-35s flyers and signs piled together on a table.

It was awkward, knocking on strangers’ doors. Eken Park had once been my neighborhood, but not for several years. These were not my neighbors. We were a slightly intimidating group of three, someone told us, as we approached homes and people on the street with our flyers, yard signs, and postcards. We adjusted by having one or two of us hang back, which I think may have only made our approach even more ominously awkward, as our gangly entourage stretched down front stoops and onto the sidewalk.

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I was tagging along at a neighborhood canvassing event led by Eken Park Resistance (EPR). The goal was to chat with people about the F-35s, meet neighbors, and start building relationships.

What our trio lacked in grace, we made up for in enthusiasm. This was still more than a month before the decision to base F-35s at Truax was officially announced, and yet most of our conversations involved talking to people who were concerned about the jets but thought it was already a done deal. (Side note: even today, there are ongoing legal challenges and organizing efforts to keep the F-35s from landing and staying at Truax Base, which I am still heavily involved in). We eagerly shared information about upcoming events to take action with other neighbors. People were interested. Eken Park Resistance window signs popped up throughout the neighborhood even during our walk, as we crossed blocks already covered by other canvassers. Our groups reconvened at Bashford United Methodist to debrief and plan for a speak-out in the weeks ahead.

(Cue the sound of a needle scratching as it skips across a record.)

Turning back to my notes for the multimedia Flight Path series Tone Madison published in April 2020 was like opening a time capsule. Canvassing was EPR’s last in-person event before the COVID-19 lockdown. Momentum was growing in the weeks before the final decision was expected from the Air Force, but felt like it came to a sudden halt as focus (understandably) shifted to the immediate needs of the pandemic.

Flight Path was my attempt to share some of the behind-the-scenes stories from organizing against the F-35s. Released in the days after the Air Force announced that Truax had been selected as a base for the jets, it was also a way to make it clear that organizing to stop them would continue.

Last week, we shared what Tone Madison can do with $20,000. The vast majority of reader donations go towards paying people—for reporting, writing, editing, and illustrations. Tone Madison pays competitive freelance rates. Right now, your donations are doubled by NewsMatch through the end of the year.

This week, we’re sharing one example of what in-depth reporting can look like, and the resources needed to make stories possible.

Flight Path was pulled together from several months of reporting and weeks of writing and editing. When opening up this time capsule (ahem, Google Drive folder), I found more than 20 documents with outlines and rearranged versions of the script, pages and pages of notes on the Environmental Impact Statement and other research, and a folder full of audio and video recordings.

I remember spending evenings that turned into late nights on my screen porch, recording and rerecording the narration one paragraph at a time so that I could adjust the wording, accidentally capturing the trills of returning red-winged blackbirds in the background. In a classic writerly move and fit of unrealistic optimism, I told Publisher Scott Gordon I’d have a draft in by the end of the week, which then stretched into two or three. When I finally got the draft to Scott, I think his response was something like: holy shit, this is 10,000 words. We had discussed something in the range of a 15-20 minute podcast episode. It ended up being an hour and 15.

This was not investigative reporting. There is nothing that I dug up that organizers, who had already been putting in countless hours for months, didn’t already know. The goal of this story was to share the voices of people steadily organizing behind-the-scenes, and to provide a record of the moment. And, hopefully, to help others get involved.

Before I started outlining the episode, I called my mom. She lives in Madison, not quite under the flight path, but definitely close enough to hear the jets. I wanted to get a sense of what information people had picked up on who weren’t necessarily following the issue, but did have an interest, and potentially a stake, in it. To know what questions people had and where they were getting their information. My notes from that conversation began with this: 

“Keeping in mind that a lot of people might not feel like they know enough to talk about or be vocal about an issue, or feel self-conscious about it, when they’ve been absorbing information throughout the process. Hearing this from folks, and recognizing it in myself at times, it feels akin to imposter syndrome, and an outcome/characteristic of white supremacy culture (a la Tema Okun)—feeling like you need to have your numbers and charts and facts lined up in order to have the conversation or make the case or even just be valid in your opinion, and if you don’t then you run the risk of being “exposed” or challenged in a way that could undermine the cause you want to support. I want to weave stories about the ways that people overcome that, the reasons that people are moved to action or find or create or build for themselves the tools to create change even when there isn’t an instruction manual available. Tell stories that make the process of organizing feel more accessible. Neighbors and neighbors.

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A first step in organizing, and in this kind of reporting, is relationship building. It takes time and care and thought, to show up and keep showing up. Even though I keep doing that other writerly thing here—talking about myself and the process of writing—most of what made Flight Path possible was following well worn advice to be present and listen.

I outlined the story after transcribing the interviews into spreadsheets and starting to weave the conversations together. The narration helped fill the gaps between each piece. Then I started to record the narration. I would write. I would stop. I would record myself and play it back. I would tweak. I would record myself again, until the language and the tone felt right. I cobbled together the various audio clips so that I could hear how they flowed back-to-back.

The draft script went to Scott for a round of thorough edits and fact checking. When we finally had it settled, I folded myself into a rather small closet, knees tucked into my chest, cushioned by pillows and blankets, to try and get the best sound that I could. A cardboard box sat atop a base of 10 precisely sized books, holding a weird tupperware contraption to keep the (no-longer) handheld microphone at the right angle in the small space. My partner diligently kept the dogs away from the room (they were concerned about this closet situation) and made sure not to touch a faucet (the pipes were on the other side of the closet) while I recorded one section at a time until it was done.

It took a partnership of Tone Madison, Communication, and the Northside News to cover a portion of the time spent writing and editing, the audio production costs—Sarah Jennings Evans edited the audio for quality and consistency, and turned it into a podcast—and to provide recording equipment.

Flight Path was the kind of project best taken on with a healthy dose of passion and naivete. If I had any idea what I was getting myself into, I’m not sure that I ever would’ve been able to start. It was exhausting, energizing and humbling. But when I finished, I thought: this is it. I could do this every day for the rest of my life.

Tone Madison offers the opportunity for writers, journalists and artists to tell the stories they care about. Forget stale notions of status quo objectivity that only serve the powerful. We need people to report with diligence, care—and fair compensation—on the issues that impact them and their communities.

Please consider making a donation to support this reporting. Now through the end of the year, your contribution—including new monthly subscriptions—will be doubled.

And if there are stories that you want to tell, get in touch. 

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